The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

May 25, 2013

Honing their skills: Vance AFB Silver Talon Honor Guard positions are highly coveted

By Jeff Mullin, Senior Writer
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — A whirring fan stirs the air in a large room on the second floor of Bldg. 312 at Vance Air Force Base.

The noisy appliance tries, but fails, to mute the sounds of guttural commands and counted steps, booted feet striking the floor and hands slapping rifles crisply into place.

It is a Monday, and the members of Vance’s Silver Talon Honor Guard are honing their skills.

They spend all working day every Monday in this room and, when weather permits, on the grounds outside, going over the fine points of posting the colors and performing the rituals associated with a military funeral.

To aid them in the latter endeavor, a silver casket sits in the middle of the Talons’ practice room, draped in an American flag.

This is volunteer duty for these airmen, and a highly coveted position, said Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez, non-commissioned officer in charge of Silver Talon Honor Guard. His normal job is NCOIC of customer support in the military personnel section of the 71st Force Support Squadron.

“The only airmen allowed to be part of the honor guard are the cream of the crop,” said Rodriguez. “Leadership can recommend them, but our members have to have a sparkling record. They have to be the best of the best.”

Lofty expectations of honor guard members helped convince Senior Airman Devin Courtney to join the Silver Talons two years ago.

“The honor guard has higher standards than most military units,” said Courtney, a native of Clarksville, Tenn. “I just want to hold myself to a higher standard. It’s an honor.”

Airman 1st Class Christina Sullivan has been a member of the Silver Talons only since February. She was inspired to join by her supervisor, who also is an honor guard member, as well as having witnessed an honor guard render military honors at the funeral of her grandfather, a veteran.

“It’s a pride thing, putting on the uniform every day and going to work,” said Sullivan, who hails from Kellogg, Minn. “It’s pretty awesome, but being on honor guard is like that times 10. You put that (ceremonial) uniform on and you think, ‘I’m doing something great. It’s a great feeling.”

Prospective honor guard members must fill out an application as if they were seeking a new job. Once their leadership approves their application, candidates are interviewed by Rodriguez, who has the final say.

“I don’t reject them very often,” said Rodriguez. “I trust leadership with their review of the members. But some members don’t personify the Air Force.”

At present, Silver Talon Honor Guard has 22 members, including Rodriguez. They are divided into three groups, or flights. Each month, one of the flights — A, B, or C — is on call. During that month, the members of that flight will staff any detail necessary. The next month they are on standby, called to honor guard duty in case of conflicting ceremonies. Members have every third month off.

“If any ceremony comes down, I push it out for the flight,” said Rodriguez. “We man details. We don’t drop any event. We have 100 percent manned ceremonies.”

Requests for military funerals normally go through the base’s mortuary affairs person, then to Rodriguez. But since Vance’s mortuary affairs job is vacant, Rodriguez has taken on that role, as well.

Serving on the honor guard keeps its members busy, as they must keep up with their regular jobs while fulfilling their Silver Talon obligations. That often involves spending nights or weekends in the office. But honor guard, they say, is worth it.

“It gives me the warm fuzzies every time I see that flag,” said Rodriguez.

The Silver Talon Honor Guard renders honors at funerals for those who have served in any branch of the military. Deceased veterans receive a three-man ceremony featuring flag-folding and a bugler playing “Taps.” A seven-man team conducts retiree funerals, with a 21-gun salute added to the flag-folding and “Taps.” In addition, honor guard members can serve as pallbearers. Funerals for active-duty members involve 21 people and include a color guard.

“We’ve been lucky enough not to have to do an active-duty funeral,” said Rodriguez.

Funerals, said Rodriguez, offer a final opportunity to thank veterans for their service.

“The funeral is the last thing that family will see from the military,” he said. “We do the best we can to give the family one last dignified goodbye.”

“We are doing it for the families, not ourselves,” said Courtney. “That motivates me every day.”

“The appreciation that you receive from the families, it’s very touching,” said Sullivan. “It really motivates you to keep doing what you’re doing.”

Rodriguez, who has been involved with honor guard for nearly a decade, cautions his young charges not to let their emotions get in the way during funerals.

“Nine times out of 10 you get tears involved (from family members),” said Courtney. “But being on honor guard, we have to maintain our military bearing, so we ourselves can’t show the emotions we’d like to actually show.”

“First-time honor guardsmen don’t quite understand the impact they are making until they do their first funeral,” said Rodriguez. “They see how important it is.”

Despite all their practice, the Silver Talons sometimes find themselves having to wing it.

“Funerals hardly ever go the way we practiced,” said Courtney, who works in aviation resource management with the 3rd Flying Training Squadron. “I find that pretty difficult sometimes, to try to be flexible.”

“You try to improvise on the spot and hope that everyone else goes along with you,” said Sullivan, a personnelist with 71st FSS.

 Courtney said he has heard stories of a pickup truck serving as a hearse at one funeral, and he was on duty at another in which the deceased’s ashes were contained in a coffee can.

“Every funeral you’re likely to get a surprise,” he said.

Vance’s honor guard conduct funerals throughout an area spanning 19 counties in Oklahoma, and four in southwest Kansas. In all, the Silver Talons’ territory covers some 42,000 square miles.

Funeral duty often takes the Silver Talons to some far-flung rural cemeteries, often under trying weather conditions.

“It’s one of those things that you just have to roll with, whether it’s raining, snowing or 130 degrees outside,” said Courtney. “And the ceremonial uniform can get pretty hot.”

Vance’s honor guard also posts the colors at schools and at sporting events, besides taking part in parades and patriotic ceremonies.

“We like to try to get involved with the community as much as possible,” said Sullivan.

School details are among Courtney’s favorites.

“You get to interact with the children, and the children actually get to see us honor guard members and their little eyes light up,” he said. “They are all oohs and aahs.”